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Trump’s Silence on Russia’s Corruption Protests Shows Just How Big Putin Won
Taking down Hillary Clinton wasn't personal animus. It was an attack on core U.S. values.
On Twitter this weekend, people joked darkly about the silence from the Trump administration as large protests — and mass arrests — took place across Russia. The amoral, mercantilist nationalism of Trump’s so-called “America first” policy had already lowered expectations and opinions of the United States. Jokes aside, the administration’s silence — echoing that on Russia’s state-controlled TV — has weakened the United States. Every president in recent history except Donald Trump has understood (as Russian President Vladimir Putin surely does) that America has a strategic as well as a moral interest in standing with democrats around the world, and that America grows stronger and more powerful the more successfully it represents universal values on the world stage.
The silence of Trump and his team on Sunday was exactly what Putin wanted — his investment in Trump’s election paying dividends in the form of what Jake Sullivan, in a piece for Foreign Policy, called Trump’s “unilateral moral disarmament.” Eventually, the State Department put out a statement in the middle of the night Moscow time, only after sharp words from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebr.) and others about the administration’s damning silence. Press Secretary Sean Spicer leaned on the State Department statement at Monday’s White House press briefing, without addition or embellishment.
The counterfactual of what could have been, of a Hillary Clinton administration’s public response to these protests, is painfully easy to imagine: a statement of solidarity — in the name of the president or the secretary of state — with those calling for an end to corruption in Russia and everywhere; reference to the America’s commitment to universal principles inscribed in international law and to the Russian government’s international obligations to protect human rights; a nod to the role of peaceful protest in driving progress in many societies around the world, including the United States.
As information about potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin continues to come to light, the contrast between the muted response that was and the principled, confident response that could have been is an opportunity to reflect on Putin’s reasons for intervening in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Last week, FBI Director James Comey’s statements to the House Intelligence Committee, paired with leaks about investigations of potential liaisons between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence during the 2016 election, have understandably refocused attention on the Russia-Trump connection. And while we must know more about this connection — or rather, these connections — we should also not let this distort our understanding of Putin’s motives, because we need to understand why he did what he did in order to understand what’s at stake.
In January, the director of national intelligence released the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Putin had ordered interference in the U.S. presidential election. Putin put a thumb on the scale for Trump. But Putin was most likely equally interested — if not more so — in putting a thumb in Clinton’s eye. And his reasons for doing so are likely linked not only or even principally to a grudge or personal antipathy, as a number of commentators have suggested, but to what she represents and the values she has stood up for in her career.
A caveat here: Anyone who claims to know exactly what Putin is or was thinking is pretending. That said, the intervention in the U.S. election is consistent with a broader pattern of behavior in which Putin’s Kremlin seeks to undermine and reverse democratic progress (see Georgia, 2008), attack the rules-based international system of law (see attempted illegal annexation of Crimea, 2014), and especially international accountability (see Russia’s repeated defense of war criminal and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, or Putin’s outrage at FIFA President Sepp Blatter getting nailed for corruption). Putin appears motivated to defend impunity, authoritarianism, and corruption because the system from which he benefits oversees and seeks to preserve these forces in Russia.
Preservation of the regime is the primary strategic objective and motive from which all Russian policy, foreign and domestic, flows. A subsidiary objective is to weaken the United States and other actors on the world stage — the EU and NATO, for example — that are grounded in and defend rule of law and liberal democracy. Putin attacked Clinton’s campaign because he saw it as the one most likely to continue American leadership of a values-based world order. To say that Putin simply disliked Clinton or sought personal revenge is to oversimplify and miss the broader implications.
It is true that Clinton angered Putin in 2011 when she told an assembly of foreign ministers from Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe member states that the Russian parliamentary elections had been marred by widespread fraud and abuse, which was true. The public protests that followed in Moscow’s Bolotnaya square — along with the toppling of autocrats in the Arab Spring — rattled the man who was nearing the end of his four years as prime minister. He would soon tag out Dmitry Mevedev and re-assume his role as Russia’s strongman president. It was implausible and silly when Putin claimed that Clinton’s comments — rather than the fraud itself and the thousands of ordinary Russians who captured evidence on their smartphones and discussed it on social media — instigated the protests. Nonetheless, for Putin, Clinton’s public rebuke, and especially her statement that the Russian people deserve “free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them,” was unsettling.
It would be wrong, however, to see Putin’s antipathy for Clinton as linked exclusively to this incident, rather than to see the incident as an example of Clinton upholding a tradition of American foreign policy that is consistent with principles espoused by Republican and Democratic administrations over the last seven decades. Putin is threatened not only by a few sentences uttered six years ago, but also by so much else that Clinton did in her career and what her prospective presidency would have meant for his corrupt and autocratic ambitions. Clinton’s wonkish interest in doing the spadework necessary to develop a fair, rules-based system that could enhance global cooperation on economic and trade issues, the environment, security threats, and countering corruption threatened Putin’s zero-sum thinking and strong-arm approach to his neighbors. Clinton’s track record as a fierce advocate for human rights, including her dedication to lifting up women and girls, her speaking out for religious minorities, and her landmark speech on the human rights of LGBT persons, were a threat to Putin’s exploitative and abusive regime.
It’s also possible that his hatred of Clinton is driven in part by misogyny and sexism. This isn’t about Clinton personally as much as it is about what she, as a powerful woman, represents: a challenge to Putin’s constructed machismo. This doesn’t make Putin unique; many a weak man finds it uncomfortable to encounter a strong woman. It’s important to remember that in Putin’s self-preservation script, the U.S. president plays an important role as a foil. Putin encourages narratives that frame the United States and Russia in opposition to one another because that makes him look like the equal of the U.S. president. Everyone knows the U.S. president is mighty and strong, so if Putin stands in opposition to him, he must be strong too. Perhaps Putin’s sexism made him worry that a female U.S. president couldn’t lend him the toughness he lacks the way a man could.
In deciding to try to take down Clinton, Putin likely wasn’t thinking chiefly about his lingering anger surrounding the 2011 Russian elections. He wasn’t even thinking about the Russian 2018 presidential elections in which he will “run” for a fourth term — elections that we already know will be neither free nor fair, in a country where Putin controls the press and opposition figures are harassed, poisoned, and killed with alarming frequency. Clinton represented the American tradition of pursuing a rules-based order grounded in universal values — and that rules-based order is something Putin correctly sees as anathema to the kleptocratic authoritarianism over which he presides.
I worked for Clinton. I learned from her and worked with her to write several speeches about human rights. I admire her and respect her, and I think she would have been a terrific president. But my point here is not that she is exceptional, but rather that she recognized and embraced the idea that America has an exceptional role to play in building and defending world order that is governed by rules grounded in human dignity. She saw and forcefully articulated her conviction on this, just as Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama each did. Putin wasn’t principally trying to inflict revenge on someone he sees as a personal foe. He was trying to disrupt a longstanding principle in American foreign policy — that the United States stands with the billions of individuals around the world who are still yearning to be free. That is why Putin saw derailing Clinton’s White House bid as a way of tightening his own grip on the Kremlin.
As I stated in testimony for the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, we need an independent investigation into Russia’s intervention into the U.S. elections so that we can address vulnerabilities and deliver consequences for such actions in the future, and so that American voters have the opportunity to understand how Russia sabotaged their democratic rights. A commission would provide useful detail of the nature and scope of the Russian interference in our democratic process. But we must also guard against the notion that this was chiefly about the two candidates in the last election — one helped and one hindered by Putin.
Clinton’s liberal internationalism would not have been unique among American presidents — her foreign policy views are centrist and generally accord with the mainstream of both Republicans and Democrats — and there will be future candidates who also stand strong for universal principles. We must not let Putin or any other foreign leader have a veto on U.S. values.
Photo credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images